Returning Islamic State fighters are spreading “a really viral ideology” and looking for vulnerable countries to target, says terrorism expert Anne Speckhard.
Among those least surprised, perhaps, by the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings that killed at least 321 people in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka was Anne Speckhard, the head of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism think tank. During her career Speckhard has interviewed more than 600 terrorists and their associates, including dozens of Islamic State defectors and returnees. She said she was at a United Nations conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, in February when a Sri Lankan intelligence officer approached her expressing concern about rising Islamist extremism in the island nation, which has been largely peaceful since a civil war ended about a decade ago. On Tuesday, in a statement issued on the social media app Telegram, the Islamic State said it had targeted Christians as well as citizens from countries involved in the coalition to fight the Islamic State.
In the hours after the attack, the Sri Lankan government attributed blame to a little-known Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jamaath, but there was almost immediate suspicion that the nature of the bombings suggested the attackers had received guidance from elsewhere. The country’s junior defense minister also suggested that a second group, Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, may have been involved. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that some of the people involved in Sunday’s attack had traveled to Syria, but he did not say whether they had fought for Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS. In 2016, the Sri Lankan government acknowledged that 32 Muslims from “well-educated and elite” families had gone to Syria to join the Islamic State.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Speckhard said that while the caliphate may have been defeated, Islamic State ideology remains perilously potent.
Foreign Policy: Were you surprised this morning when you heard that the Islamic State had claimed responsibility?
Anne Speckhard: Not at all.
FP: What particular aspects of this, if you had to list them, signaled to you that this was not entirely homegrown?
AS: The fact that it’s called Thowheeth Jamaath makes me think that it’s linked to ideology which is coming from outside the country [Thowheeth means “oneness of god,” and Jamaat means “brotherhood”]. That a Muslim group engaged in suicide terrorism. If it had been Tamils engaging in suicide terrorism, OK, it was the Tamil Tigers. And the fact that they did multiple attacks, and that they figured out to do it on Easter and to attack Western hotels. It just has all the hallmarks. They may not have been directed, but nowadays it’s such an interlinked world. In most attacks, you see someone talking to someone somewhere else in the world.
FP: The Sri Lankan prime minister has suggested that some of the attackers had traveled abroad before the bombings. What does this mean, were there Islamic State returnees involved?
AS: People who have gone and lived under ISIS, the first thing they do with the men is put them under sharia training. Sharia and weapons training. So these are people that probably already had the ideology when they traveled to ISIS, but it just got strengthened. It doesn’t get strengthened for everyone—some get disillusioned. But those that come back holding it are extremely dangerous.
FP: You have said that 45,000 people traveled from around the world to join the Islamic State. How many of them do we now have tabs on globally?
AS: More than half have returned home. And in the beginning, most countries were extremely lenient on women, so most women didn’t get charged. There’s a case in Kosovo, where an ISIS fighter we interviewed after he’d been in prison for, I think, a four-year sentence told us in our second interview, “I hope you get beheaded by Jihadi John.” The tail of his prison sentence coincided with the start-up of a rehab program, and he mocked the rehab program. But his wife, who is said to be more extremist than him, was never charged. She wasn’t a fighter, but she went with him. He also said he got more radicalized in prison. Who’s to say that he wouldn’t say to his wife, “Hey honey, I think you should strap on a vest and go.” And she kept in contact with people in ISIS when he was in prison.
These people have returned, most of the women—in the past—were not charged. Now they [European authorities] are starting to take women much more seriously. Europeans get really short sentences, and they’re really hard to convict, because it’s hard to prove.
FP: So there’s potentially tens of thousands of people right now walking around who were part of the Islamic State, but who are at large basically?
AS: In the world? Yes. I think it’s estimated that over half returned. The other half, a lot got killed. So a majority of the survivors are women and children, but there’s men too.
FP: To that extent, do you expect that Islamic State will now look for these soft targets, countries like Sri Lanka that don’t have a recent history of radical Islamic terrorism and may not be on the lookout for it?
AS: I think it’s the wave of the future. I think that what our security systems have to really get on top of is that, if you have small groups, that they can mobilize quickly nowadays. It’s such an interconnected world, and once they believe this poison, it’s very virulent. Because people who are willing to give their lives are extremely dangerous. And they’re dangerous in different ways in different places. Like in the U.S., what always worries me is how accessible guns are.
Our FBI is fantastic, we’re really lucky for them. They’re watching signals all the time and stopping people all the time before they even get on planes. But not every country has a robust FBI like we do.
FP: Some people were sounding the warning about this within the Sri Lankan intelligence community. Is this going to be viewed as an intelligence failure?
AS: It’s horrible, I feel really sorry for them, but I think that governments function that way. Different parts of governments talk to each other, they ignore each other, and the wheels spin slowly, while terrorist groups are adept and fast.
FP: At the conference you attended in Sri Lanka in February, was there any discussion of this group that carried out the attacks yesterday?
AS: I think that the intelligence woman from Sri Lanka mentioned it. … She was saying she was tracking this activity and she was worried about it, and she asked me, “What do you think?” And I said, “Well, that’s the profile, but are you following them? Are you watching them?” And she said that from time to time they just disappear, they move. So they were aware that something was brewing.
FP: Did you get the sense that was just one concerned Sri Lankan intelligence officer?
AS: Yes. … And I told her, “Well, jeez, it seems you’ll be much more likely to get a resurgence of the Tamil Tigers, you hit them so hard.” And one of their generals came over and he kind of put her in her place and looked at me like what are you talking about, we never did anything except the right thing. … He didn’t really want to listen to her. And then later he left, and I talked to her some more. But she was obviously lower on the totem pole, but onto the right thing.
It’s a really viral ideology, and it’s dangerous, and we’ve seen how powerful it is. If you can attract 45,000 people, that’s no small thing. And that’s why when people ask, “Is ISIS done?” I’m like, “In your dreams.” If you can attract that many people, and that’s why we really have to delegitimize these groups.
FP: When you’re talking to people in the intelligence community and the FBI, do they feel like Islamic State is done?
AS: No, when I talk to people in the Defense Department they say they’re coming back. That we’re going to be back in Syria. We’re out for a while, but we’re going to be back in a couple of years, if not sooner.
FP: What’s the way to combat this? It’s a terrifying thought that you can have a group of 10 people in Sri Lanka be inspired by a group in Syria or wherever they were, and just chatting through social media apps that are readily available to everyone. How do you defend against that?
AS: I think that we have to be as clever as them, and they use very emotionally evocative images. So, they get you the same way World Vision gets you to donate. You see a kid surrounded by flies in a famine, and you can’t stand it, and you send money. And they show you atrocities against Muslims, and you can’t stand it, it gets you crazy. So they’re really good with that, and then they pair it with music, with scriptures—they twist the scriptures so it doesn’t even resemble mainstream Islam. But they use things which you value and which are sacred to you and are important to you, and they play on your values and your emotions. Instead of giving money, you give yourself.
It’s super smart, and we have to do the same thing: We have to fight back with things that are both rational and emotional. So that’s what we do when we get an ISIS person to talk back, an insider. We figure that’s somebody that they’ll listen to, and we make it all emotional and we use their video to show scenes. But we frame it totally differently, we frame it with a person denouncing ISIS. And we have to be active on the internet just like them. But we always say we fail in our project in that we create good content, we can go toe-to-toe on content, but we don’t follow up. When somebody responds to anything we’ve got, we don’t have a little army that responds to them, that says, “Hey, you liked our video. Were you watching ISIS videos? Are you OK?” Whereas they are. They’re saying, “Hey, you liked our video. Can I send you more? Are you interested? Brother, you need to be a good Muslim. Let me be your friend.”
We subtitle them in 27 different languages, because we know that ISIS is recruiting in all those different languages. We don’t have them in Tamil, but I guess we should.